Amid the bustling sidewalks and overflowing eateries, traipsing through the Strip District on a Saturday overwhelms the senses.
Rich colors fill the street from vendors offering a range of nick-knacks — be it flashy yellow Terrible Towels, vibrant dream catchers, or fresh cut flowers. Shoppers’ conversations echo up and down the street as they mill about and browse displays showcasing tantalizing artisan chocolates and handcrafted pottery. If you know where to look, the treasures that can be uncovered in the Strip today are as varied as when the area began to fill with merchants. (OK, perhaps they are not as eclectic as the suit of armor a young Joey Yankel, 4, investigated in 1979).
Shops began opening in the Strip in the 1900s, drawn by the close proximity to the railroads delivering fresh wares. By the 1920s, grocery stores and wholesale merchants were thriving along Penn Avenue and Smallman Street.
A history of wholesale
As you approach the Strip from Downtown along Penn Avenue and walk past the Robert Wholey Company, try not to stop for a steaming lobster roll from the stand outside. Enter the double doors and debate ordering a helping of sushi made fresh from the stock of fish filling the first section of the store. Today, Wholey’s is well known in Pittsburgh for its wholesale seafood.
That was not always the case. In 1912, when Robert L. Wholey first founded the store in McKees Rocks, the options ranged from live poultry, meats and sausages to a selection of different coffees.
His son, Robert C. Wholey, returned from serving in World War II and opened the Robert Wholey Company Poultry Market in Diamond Market (what is now Market Square). It was here he started his famous chicken barbecues in 1955. In 1959, the store moved once more when the city of Pittsburgh converted Diamond Market into a park.
Fish fare followed the transition to the Strip District. In 1960, Wholey’s expanded to sell fresh seafood and a year later mobilized a fleet of trucks for home delivery.
The third generation of the Wholey family still runs the company, and continues to expand the operation. You can still run into one of the Wholeys in the store sorting the produce. Feeling adventurous? Wholey’s now offers rare cuts, including alligator, frog or turtle meat for purchase on the company website.
Coffee, tea and camaraderie:
For more than 30 years, Prestogeorge Fine Foods has filled the Strip District with fragrant of gourmet, fresh ground coffee, including sweet undertones of hazelnut or vanilla from flavored varieties.
In the early 1960s John Prestogeorge founded his coffee and tea business in the Miracle Mile Shopping Center in Monroeville. He later moved to Greensburg, and finally settled in the Strip District where he offered over 200 types of coffee, in addition to a wide variety of unique loose leaf teas.
During a time when many coffee lovers roasted and ground beans at home for a morning cup of joe, Prestogeorge was determined to make a gourmet coffee with bold, distinct flavor. After months of testing and tweaking, he put the finishing touches on the J.P. Hearty Blend, a mix of 80 percent Indonesian Sumatra and 20 percent Vienna roast. His bold combination was so successful that it is still one of the store’s most popular varieties today.
Under Prestogeorge, the store offered customers far more than just fresh, high-quality coffee and unique blends of loose leaf tea. “You wouldn’t believe the rapport he had with customers,” Stan Prestogeorge, his son and now President of the company, told the Post-Gazette following Prestogeorge’s passing in 2010. “He had customers in every state” and it wasn’t even unusual for him to see them on family vacations.
Looking for a cup as rich in history as flavor? You can still find the J.P. Hearty Blend, alongside innovative roasts such as the red, white and blueberry coffee in this staple Strip District shop.
All in the family
A little further down the strip, you cross the threshold of the Stamooli Brothers and with one inhale find yourself in Greece. Aromas from 300 varieties of cheese, 30 types of olives and 100 grains sold in the store make it easy to imagine the shop when it was founded.
The journey began in 1907 when five brothers (from a family of 17 children) traveled from Italy to New York and eventually opened a retail store specializing in imports. After success in the Big Apple, the brothers moved to Pittsburgh in 1929 and partnered with their brother-in-law to found Stamooli Brothers on Penn Avenue.
A fire in 1951 caused extensive damage to the store. When brothers Gus and Peter O. Stamooli took over the family company in 1965, they began restorations. The store still stands at its original location on Penn Avenue.
Where the people are as key as the products
Step next door to the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, and take a breath of the spices and grains lining the walls at the entrance.
The spices were not a staple at Penn Mac when Augustino, Salvatore, and Michael Sunseri founded the company to manufacture pasta. Still, the spices have their own place in the store’s history. After the 1951 fire nearly burned down Penn Mac, the second Sunseri generation, Robert and Salvatore, rebuilt and expanded retail to include the array of spices, olive oil, Italian cheeses, and other specialty products.
Farther into the shop, you find the cheese counter where ordering from cheese aficionado Carol ‘Dearheart’ Pascuzzi was as much a part of the Penn Mac experience as buying a bag of fettuccine. Until her retirement this summer, she spent the past 30 years greeting customers with the affectionate moniker ‘Dearheart’ before offering advice on asiago.
Even before Pascuzzi, Ursula Janotti was the original ‘Cheese Lady’ for the Sunseri family. Pascuzzi took over cheese counter duty in 1984. At the time, the entirety of Penn Mac’s storefront fit the space the cheese and cold-cut counters now occupy.
The third generation of the Sunseri now runs the store and sells over 200,000 pounds of cheese each week (equivalent to the weight of a small adult blue whale).
Shops along the Strip are as eclectic as they are historic. Even after a season’s worth of weekends exploring the area, you continue to stumble upon new shops, each with their own story and treasures to offer. It’s easy to get stuck in sidewalk traffic as people funnel between tables laden with merchandise as you jostle through weekend grocery shopping.
It is these moments, when it is simple to get caught in the present, that it is rewarding to pause a moment and take a deep breath of the past (and perhaps indulge in a large cup of a Prestogeorge latte).